BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – Brunei’s monarch said Southeast Asian leaders would not expel Myanmar from ASEAN despite a lack of progress on a peace plan meant to cease violence in the crisis-hit country.

Myanmar’s seat was glaringly absent during three days of ASEAN-led meetings, where discussions on COVID-19 recovery were overshadowed by Myanmar’s political turmoil and intensifying rivalries between China and the West.

“Myanmar is an integral part of the ASEAN family and their membership has not been questioned,” His Majesty Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah said at a press conference following the close of the summit on Thursday.

“ASEAN will always be there for Myanmar and we have continued to offer help through the implementation of the five-point consensus.”

Myanmar’s military leader Min Aung Hlaing, who led a coup in February, was not invited to the summit over his failure to implement that “consensus”, which he agreed with ASEAN in April, committing to ending hostilities, start dialogue and facilitate humanitarian aid and mediation efforts by a special ASEAN envoy.

The bloc had asked he send a “non-political representative” to the meetings, but the junta said it would only accept an invitation to their leader or foreign minister.

It remains unclear if, and how, Myanmar will participate in future ASEAN meetings.

The sultan said ASEAN will give Myanmar space to return to normalcy, adding that “only the people of Myanmar can fully resolve their own internal situation.”

A group of women hold torches as they protest against the military coup in Yangon, Myanmar on July 14, 2021. Photo: Reuters

The incoming chair Cambodia warned that Myanmar was on the “brink of civil war”, saying its government would establish an ad hoc task force to work with conflicting parties “quietly or through back-door diplomacy” .

More than 1,000 civilians have been killed since the February coup, with evidence of the military using systematic torture to quash dissent across the country.

“While we all respect the principle of non-interference into domestic affairs of member states, the situation in Myanmar continues to be a subject of grave concern,” Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn told Reuters.

“(It) has negative impacts on the region, the credibility of the association and on the people of Myanmar, our brothers and sisters.”

He said Cambodia would appoint a new special envoy to Myanmar to start work early next year when it takes the reins of ASEAN.

The current envoy, Dato Erywan Yusof, represents outgoing ASEAN chair Brunei.

Diplomats said the next test of ASEAN’s resolve to exclude the junta will be a China-ASEAN summit next month, which Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to attend.

– With additional reporting from Reuters